Two years into his tenure as Kentucky women’s basketball coach, Matthew Mitchell felt like his job was in danger of slipping away. At the time, Mitchell’s record as UK Hoops head man was 33-32 with no NCAA Tournament trips.
“There wasn't a lot of optimism or buzz around the program,” Mitchell told me in 2013. “I really felt like my back was against the wall after that second year because it didn't seem like a whole lot was happening for us.”
Motivated by that sense of desperation, Mitchell came up with a playing style — up-tempo, guard-oriented, full-court pressing — that not only saved his job. It launched Kentucky to the best sustained run in its women’s basketball history — seven straight NCAA Tournaments, five trips to the round of 16, three Elite Eights.
Yet that early-career adversity seems like a mere divot compared to the Grand Canyon of a challenge Mitchell currently faces.
The announcement Wednesday that junior-to-be forward Alexis Jennings is transferring out of the Kentucky program continued the mass defection of UK players during the current school year.
With Jennings bolting, more UK scholarship players with eligibility remaining have left the program this school year (seven) than there are returning scholarship players (six) left on the Wildcats roster.
Add in freshman signee Chanin Scott, and Kentucky currently has seven players slated to play for the Wildcats in 2016-17.
Yet assuming no other players defect, next season is not UK’s biggest concern.
A team built around star guard Makayla Epps, talented post player Evelyn Akhator, sophomore-to-be guards Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Makenzie Cann; and junior-to-be center Alyssa Rice can make the NCAA tourney, albeit with no margin of error for injuries, foul trouble, disciplinary problems, etc. ...
It is after senior-to-be standouts Epps and Akhator depart when Kentucky is looking at a moment of reckoning.
To prevent that, UK needs a major infusion of talent, and it needs it in the next recruiting class. Yet given the optics that surround Mitchell’s program after the great player exodus of 2015-16, the Cats head coach is going to have to surmount waves of negative recruiting to restock his roster.
So far, most of the players exiting UK Hoops have declined to publicly state their reasons for leaving. At this point, Kentucky would likely be better off if they spoke up.
The uncertainty of why Mitchell has had so much roster turnover is toxic.
My suspicion is there is no one “smoking gun” behind the meltdown of the UK women’s basketball program, but a series of factors.
1.) Quitting begets quitting. In any organization, when it becomes acceptable to let go of the rope, more and more people will let it go.
At the national level in women’s college basketball, this offseason has been rife with player upheaval, including several genuine stars transferring. Kentucky is an extreme case, but what has happened here is not occurring in isolation.
2.) Mitchell’s inability to build a cohesive coaching staff has caught up to him.
Since the 2011-12 season, Mitchell has employed nine different assistants. This offseason is the second time in three years he’s had to replace all three full-time assistants.
In most successful major-college basketball programs, the head coach pushes players beyond their comfort levels, sometimes in tough, demanding ways.
Usually, it is left to the assistants to play “good cop” and reassure the players that the head coach cares about them and is only trying to inspire their best.
Because Kentucky has had so much assistant coaching turnover, the relationships and trust required to “build the players back up” may not have existed.
3.) The “culture” that allowed UK Hoops to ascend has seemed to be under stress in recent years.
Near the end of the 2014-15 season, Mitchell spoke often about his team’s four seniors — Bria Goss, Jennifer O’Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney — coming to his house to ask the coach to be more vigilant in upholding the standards of the program.
I asked Mitchell last week if he had over-compensated and become too tough.
“No, I think that meeting with those seniors was nothing but positive for me,” he said. “I worked really hard to create a good environment in practice and I think those results showed on the court. I think where I have made the misstep is if people are feeling like I didn’t care about them and I didn’t serve them and I didn’t serve them well enough off the court.”
In its entire women’s basketball history, Kentucky has seven 25-win seasons; Mitchell has produced six of them.
All-time, UK has 85 victories over ranked teams — Mitchell has 44 of them.
Of UK Hoops’ 19 all-time NCAA tourney victories, Mitchell has accounted for 15.
The Kentucky coach deserves a chance to try to dig out of the giant hole in which his program now finds itself.
Doing so looks much more daunting than the adversity Mitchell faced after his first two struggling seasons at UK.
A look at the players and assistant coaches who have left the Kentucky program since last October:
Oct. 15 — Mitchell announces that Oregon transfer Chrishae Rowe is dismissed for “failure to uphold standards of the program.”
Oct. 26 — Junior guard Linnae Harper is granted her release from UK. She eventually signs with Ohio State.
Nov. 3 — Freshman guard Morgan Rich, who was never cleared to practice with the team, requests transfer. She eventually signs with Oklahoma.
Nov. 30 — Five games into the season, junior forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers leaves program, eventually signs to play at Western Kentucky.
March 29, 2016 — Junior-college forward Ivana Jakubcova granted her release as a graduate transfer. She has not announced where she plans to play next.
April 14 — Kentucky confirms that it is not planning to renew the contract of second-year assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou.
April 25 — Freshman forward Batouly Camara is granted her release by the school. She has not signed anywhere yet.
April 25 — UK announces that second-year assistant coach Tamika Williams-Jeter has opted not to return.
April 26 — Kentucky confirms it has released McDonald’s All-American Lindsey Corsaro from her national letter of intent. The night before, the mother of 2017 verbal commitment Madison Treece told ESPN her daughter is reopening her recruitment as well.
April 27 — UK announces that assistant coach Camryn Whitaker is pursuing other coaching opportunities and will not be returning to UK after one season on staff.
May 4 — Sophomore forward Alexis Jennings requests transfer from UK, has not announced a new destination.